That Woo-Woo Money Thing

Posted on Feb 4, 2010 in Business | 50 comments

Oh Yes! It's FREE

free-sign by Flickr user koka_sexton (CC-Attribution license)

Diane Gilleland has been writing and podcasting (with Paul over at Dudecraft) about “free” this week, and as always I’ve been reading and listening with giddy excitement because she tackles such big ideas so simply and eloquently.

In her post today over at Make & Meaning, she ends with a point that’s made all the time when people who get Free try to explain the whole shindig to people who don’t quite get it.

I know it sounds a bit “woo-woo,” but if you’re giving Free for the sake of giving Free, sooner or later the money part works itself out. And along the way, you’ll gain a whole bunch of stuff that’s way more valuable in the end than the money.

We people who grok and love free are totally woo woo about it. That tends to really piss off the hard-numbers business types who like to sit us down and hammer us with questions about profits and expenses and loss leaders and bottom lines (“But,” they demand, “how will you make money?”) and it’s also a little too hand-wavy for people who might want to give it a shot but are a bit risk-averse (“But,” they timidly ask, “how will I pay my rent?”).

I thought I’d elaborate on Diane’s point to take a bit of the sheen of woo woo out of it. If you do Free right, you gain all kinds of intangibles just like Diane explains: you connect with real people and feel satisfaction just from that, and even more so if you develop a further relationship with them; you get praise, and praise feels damn good; you get an audience, sometimes small, but if you do Free right, that audience tends to grow, and if you kick ass, that audience can grow a lot; all these things add up to even more things you can provide to your community (like recommendations and connections), and that just increases the bonds you form and the praise you get.

The money doesn’t really just materialize, though. There’s one thing you have to do to get the money: seize (the right) opportunities when they come around. You don’t need to have an air-tight business model if you don’t want one. Free involves deliberately winging it. With a good emphasis on the deliberate AND on being comfortable winging it.

Here’s how that all worked for me:

In 2004 I started a website on a lark. I didn’t know about Free and I didn’t know about the crafts industry and I didn’t know about editing or publishing. I just opened my big mouth, and as it turns out that’s very much in line with who I am – I’m a big-mouth-opener, and much of my life consists of the usually-positive consequences of that.

So this website. It was free for everyone and it cost me a little money in hosting fees. Oh, and it struck a nerve. I worked hard at it, to the point that I started turning away paying work because I needed more time and energy to focus on the Free. Many people thought I was nuts. But I had a feeling and my partner was supportive, and I went with it.

About nine months after I started the site I got an email from a major book publisher asking if I would like to write a book. That came with money.

A couple of months after that I got an email from a smaller book publisher asking if I’d like to write a book. That one also came with money.

A few months after that I was asked if I’d like to write a magazine column. Yeah, I got paid for that.

Each of the two books had a follow-up book that also involved money.

Then I started talking to a third publisher about writing a book inspired by the website that started it all. I and all the people who had contributed to that website for free got paid for that book work.

Oh, then there was the full-time job I got.

And then there’s the money I made when I sold the website after I totally burned myself out. And now, after nearly six years, I’m on the other side of that adventure, working in a different industry and back to doing free stuff in crafts. Don’t think for a minute I don’t hope that some amazing opportunities might come my way at some point. I totally hope for that. But I do it because I love writing about crafts and I love making stuff, and I do it because I love the community I’m a part of and I love getting to know even more people in it. I do it because I’m just so damn stimulated by the people I get to work with.

So, yes. I’m back to doing things like meeting deadlines I don’t get paid to meet. Those hard-numbers business types probably look at me and see some bubble-headed bleach blonde who threw away a career to do stuff that doesn’t even have a business model. And that’s okay. (I think those business types lack imagination to the point that they probably don’t even think pandas on the internet are adorable. Whatever. I’ll always be an orange to their apples.)

Of course, along the way I turned down some opportunities, too. Not all things that come with cash are the right things. And seriously, if I hadn’t been wearing my giant bedazzled cajones the day I got that first email from an editor – if I’d let my inexperience in the industry keep me timid – I wouldn’t have written the two books that continue to pay me four years after they first came out.

So don’t be frustrated when we advocates of Free tell you not to worry about the money. Of course you’re worried about the money. Don’t quit your day job, okay? But as you continue on your path of Free, keep your eyes peeled for those shiny opportunities, and when the right ones come along work very hard to get them, and insist on getting paid well.